Watch with Mother Angelica ...

She is one of America's biggest televangelists and Britain may be the next stop on her mission to save Catholics. By Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown
Wednesday 24 April 1996 23:02

When Mother Angelica founded the convent of Our Lady of the Angels in a poor, conservative suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, 30 years ago, at first the sisters had to support themselves by selling fishing lures and peanuts at the gates. Now her cable TV station, the Eternal Word TV Network, has 150 employees and an income of $12m a year. It is the largest religious cable TV network in the USA.

EWTN broadcasts round the clock in its fierce struggle against liberalism and feminism, featuring shows like The Glory of the Papacy and Gerbert, the Puppet Who Brings Children to God. On The Rosary Show, a young girl stands in a flower meadow telling the rosary for half an hour. This mixture is carried by more than 1,000 local stations and reaches more than 40 million homes in America; Mother Angelica also operates a global short- wave radio ministry and a large site on the Internet. Next month she arrives in London to preach at a day-long congress in Central Hall, Westminster, against the "sick liberal church" she blames for betraying ordinary Catholics and to bring to the UK televangelism, Catholic-style.

Mother Angelica has been described by Time magazine as "probably the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America". The official church is less enthusiastic. Though Cardinal Hume is addressing the congress, one fairly senior employee of the Catholic Church in this country described her as "raving mad".

At the root of this violent division lies Mother Angelica's aggressive conservatism. Now 72, she always appears on her television station, where she preaches for half an hour live every day, wearing full nun's habit, which has been largely abandoned in the USA; her clerical guests wear their uniforms, too. The broadcast Masses are conservative in style and frequent; there are four a day, one of them broadcast live from the convent

Mother Angelica was born Rita Rizzo, the grand-daughter of illiterate Italian immigrants, in the rust belt of Ohio in 1923. She became a Poor Clare at the age of 21, and had already spent 20 years as a nun in a strict order when the second Vatican Council launched the liberalisation programme that was to turn much of the American Catholic Church upside down. Nuns shed their habits, and priests their cassocks. Many did this shedding together: perhaps 100,000 priests left the Church, most to get married. The erosion of traditional authority was completed for most middle-class lay people by the 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which reasserted the traditional ban on artificial birth control. The result was a huge, if largely silent revolt.

Since then, most of the leadership of the Catholic Church, both in America and in this country, has been trying to keep open its lines to an increasingly disaffected middle-class laity. Mother Angelica represents the opposite tendency. She comes from one of the working-class Catholic communities that have now largely disappeared, along with the rest of the working class; and her whole determined and authoritarian style harks back to a pre-conciliar Catholicism. It is not only the dress of her TV presenters that is traditional; so is their manner. The liturgical style is as old- fashioned as can be and preachers on EWTN have been criticised for lecturing their audiences.

The American Roman Catholic Church is in a condition close to civil war over feminist issues and social action, and Mother Angelica is on the front line. Like the presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, she is a heroine to right-wing Catholics. She was closely associated with the recent campaign to extirpate inclusive language from the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church which delayed its English publication by two years.

She is not only opposed to women priests, but even to altar girls, an innovation grudgingly permitted by the Vatican four years ago. When a mime troupe performed a passion play in front of the Pope on his American tour in 1993, the part of Jesus was mimed by a woman. Mother Angelica immediately took to the airwaves to denounce this as a blasphemy perpetrated by liberals who for 30 years had been "constantly pushing anti-God, anti- Catholic and pagan ways into the Catholic Church."

A Christian backlash against feminism is now palpable across all the denominations. Among the speakers when she appears at the conference here, will be Dr William Oddie, a former Anglican priest who left the Church of England to get away from women priests; both as a Catholic and an Anglican he has been an untiring propagandist for the view that Christian truth is being sold out by liberal bishops and their advisers.

Mother Angelica is being brought to this country by Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice a small, right-wing English pressure group which regularly denounces the leadership of the English Catholic Church for liberal backsliding.

The influence of the Catholic right has been growing throughout Pope John Paul II's term in office. Mother Angelica and her supporters argue that trying to compromise with the modern world has done the Church nothing but harm.

Yet they are at the same time much more willing to embrace new technology than most of their opponents. EWTN, with its short-wave radio broadcasting round the world and Internet site, shows what can be accomplished by a media organisation that is not afraid of boring its listeners.

Mrs McLeod of Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice says Mother Angelica intends to use her visit next month to negotiate to bring the Eternal Word Television Network to Britain. Religious programming can be very cheap to make and, even without appeals for money on air, offers opportunities for mechandising tie-ins (the Christian retailing market in the states is worth $3bn a year).

But is there a market for it in this country? Premier Christian Radio, launched last year, sacked half its staff and is now sending out prayer cards to supporters, while the launch of Ark2, the mainstream Christian cable channel, has been postponed several times. It will be extraordinary if Mother Angelica catches on here - one English Catholic journalist who caught her show on a visit to the United States said she thought for the first few minutes she was watching Les Dawson in drag. But even if she fails here, she has already founded orders for nuns and monks whose mission will be yet more televangelism in the US.

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